Ballot measures: Hate 'em, but here's how I'm voting

Our veteran politico says initiatives and their kin merely make elected representatives lazy. But if we must make policy that way, here's how he views the major issues.
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Our veteran politico says initiatives and their kin merely make elected representatives lazy. But if we must make policy that way, here's how he views the major issues.

Many of us already are casting mail ballots in advance of the Nov. 4 election. Here is how I cast my votes on several ballot measures. Later this week I will share my votes on various candidacies.

Ballot measures can subvert good government

These direct-democracy measures have a long tradition in Washington and other western states but are uncommon elsewhere. The reason: Most constituencies believe, and I agree, that they encourage elected officials to shun their responsibilities and buck difficult political issues to the ballot.

This certainly was the case with the 2007 advisory ballot on replacement options for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which remains a safety hazard many years after the Nisqually quake which weakened it. The viaduct on Seattle's waterfront and the 520 floating bridge across lake Washington, also weakened by the quake, are state highways. The governor and Legislature have authority to choose replacement/repair options and proceed but have not done so. Gov. Chris Gregoire has spent some $1 billion on viaduct preparatory work, but no fix has been chosen or authoritative cost estimates developed. During this same period a highway bridge in Minneapolis famously collapsed, was replaced, and is fully functioning again. We are many years and billions of dollars distant from viaduct and 520-bridge solutions — mainly because our elected officials have lacked the guts to propose and execute solutions.

Ballot measures, considered populist counterweights to special-interest influence, often have the opposite effect. A willful, well financed single-issue or single-interest sponsor can frame and campaign for a measure which serves its interest but not necessarily the general interest. Good examples: last year's and this year's Propositions 1, which would authorize billions and open-ended taxing authority to construct a three-county Sound Transit light rail system which would carry fewer passengers, take longer to construct, and cost far more than alternative bus rapid transit and ordinary bus systems.

Sound Transit, light rail's prime- and sub-contractors, and the network of law firms, P.R. firms, consultants, and others profiting from light rail have mounted intense 2007 and 2008 campaigns for Prop. 1's passage. The light rail network has channeled campaign contributions to public officials and has subsidized supposedly independent groups supporting light rail. State Auditor Brian Sonntag says he will investigate payments of taxpayer funds by the City of Seattle (authorized by Mayor and Sound Transit Board Chair Greg Nickels) to the Sound Transit-supporting Transportation Choices Coalition, which is campaigning for the light rail proposal. Sound Transit itself was created by a ballot measure which grossly misrepresented the costs, time of construction, and benefits to be derived from a light rail system.

Ballot measures also are habitually used to generate monies which should be found in normal state and city budgets. Nickels deferred regular Seattle street and bridge maintenance for several years, spending city money elsewhere, and then went to voters for extra money to pay for it — and got away with it.

Critics of ballot-king Tim Eyman can give many reasons why his efforts have hamstrung public policymaking. Usually they are right — although his proposal to institute state performance audits of public and quasi-public agencies has had a completely positive effect.

In short, ballot measures provide an excuse for those we elect to not do their jobs. They also facilitate passage of proposals which might not make it through a deliberative legislative process. In a traditional process, hearings would be held, facts developed, a proposal's benefit measured against other priorities, and an outcome reached. A ballot measure asks us to vote yes or no, right now, on someone's good or bad short-term proposal.

Spending proposals inappropriate in a belt-tightening environment

This year's ballot measures are being considered at a time of financial turmoil, looming recession, and reduction of available public tax revenue. Anything getting a "yes" vote should be of incontestable merit and/or not require expenditure of public funds.

  • Initiative 1000: I voted yes for this death-with-dignity measure. I did so because I have seen, in my own and other families, the pain and burdens borne by patients with terminal illness and their families. Yet I also recognize that there are important religious and ethical grounds for opposing such a measure. I respect the opposing arguments. I am especially voting yes for my late wife and mother, both of whom suffered beyond reason in their final weeks and wished for an I-1000.

  • The Seattle parks and Pike Place Market levies: I voted no on both. We love our parks and the market. But the mayor and City Council, if they consider these purposes important, should provide for them in the regular city budget.

  • Initiative 985: I do not necessarily oppose everything Eyman supports. After all, his performance-audit measure was a winner in all respects. Nor do I necessarily oppose some of the components of I-985. Most states, for example, have no difficulty converting express traffic lanes to general use during non-rush hours. I have attended two seminars where state Department of Transportation officials were asked why Washington state could not do what others do. Their answers were bureacratic classics. Yet other parts of I-985 are not as sensible. Nor should we be using ballot measures to make operational transportation-policy decisions. Send this back to the governor, state Department of Transportation, and county and local governments for their own respective actions.

  • Proposition 1: No, no, and no. This measure, mainly to build an extended light rail system, is billed by Sound Transit as costing about $18 billion — about the cost of the infamous Boston Big Dig, which was undertaken by the same prime contractor, by the way, that is doing Sound Transit light rail. Yet the taxing authority of Proposition 1 could channel $100 billion or more to Sound Transit in coming years, depending on overruns. Sound Transit is years late, billions over a promised cost, and several key stations cancelled in constructing a line from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Northgate. Its northward path is scheduled to take it to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium on its eventual way to Northgate — and well beyond that, if Prop 1 passes. Yet Capitol Hill residents are well served by bus. University of Washington officials would leap for joy if the projected Husky Stadium station were cancelled. Its construction will create a huge hole in the stadium parking lot for several years. This area, too, already is well served by bus. The Husky Stadium stop was created only because more desirable locations in the University District proved too costly or were opposed by residents.

    No independent, reputable transportation or public-finance analyst would tell you that light rail makes any transportation or financial/economic sense in the King, Snohomish, and Pierce county region. Sound Transit would have you believe that the choice is between choked freeways and a light rail system which would lighten them. Yet studies show the projected light rail system would not reduce traffic congestion. Most of its prospective passengers already are riding transit buses. I have been amazed by the degree to which gullible editorial boards, reporters, public officials, and civic groups have bought into the Sound Transit propaganda. Such a cost-inefficient, multi-year boondoggle is the last thing we need in an economic downturn in which many other public needs have precedence and where bus service will carry more people, more flexibly, for far less money.

    Special recognition should go, here in Seattle, to the critical analysis applied to the issue by King County Executive (and former Sound Transit Chair) Ron Sims, former WSDOT Director Doug MacDonald, former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, Seattle Post-Intelligencer economic columnist Bill Virgin, Seattle Times columnists Joni Balter and Bruce Ramsey, and the Seattle Times editorial board. They took the time to understand the issue and refused light rail Kool-Aid.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of